'But I shall know that you are always with me'

29 January 2016

Sally Welch reflects on a pilgrim’s prayer that she found in a church on the pilgrim route to Limoges

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Here I am, Lord, before you,

Why?

I don’t really know.

The church door was open. . . I went in. . . and walked around. . .

And then, I thought of you.

You, God, who I may have forgotten about, but who still lives deep down inside me.

I remember that you created me in your likeness, and your mark is still there. . . even if I don’t give it a thought.

Yes, you may have called me in a discreet and friendly way, so what shall I say?

Maybe nothing — I just want to spend a few moments before you, as I am a pilgrim and I have plenty of time. Jesus, your son, spent thirty years of his life amongst us, so can’t I just spare a few minutes?

Yes, awaken in me your presence, your love, your trust, your forgiveness.

And then, let me take this opportunity of telling you what is deep down in my heart:

My joys. . . my hopes. . .

My worries. . . my misgivings. . .

My sorrows. . . my failures. . .

Yes, all that I am, and all that I wish I were.

Take care of all those I love, of those I cannot love,

And of the world with its greatness and its hardship.

Lord, I shall say “goodbye”, because a pilgrim doesn’t stay for long; they wouldn’t be a pilgrim if they did, would they?

But you may come with me Lord, and walk with me; you are so discreet, nobody will notice you . . . but I shall know that you are always with me.

Prière d’un touriste (abridged)*

 

I FIRST came across this prayer in a large, damp church on the pilgrim route to Limoges. In the visitors’ book, among the usual brief comments, giving the number and names of the party, were longer, more heartfelt, and often quite detailed pleas for healing for self and others, and for peace in the world. At even more occasional intervals were brief outlines of individuals’ spiritual quests, as they shared with the unknown pilgrims following in their steps what it was that impelled them to undertake this particular journey.

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It was in this book that this prayer had been placed, written in ballpoint pen, in French, on a small piece of scruffy, squared paper, crumpled and damp. I imagined the author entering the church in the middle of a rainstorm and being forced to spend some time there, with only his or her thoughts for company, reflecting on the journey and facing perhaps for the first time the question what it was he or she was seeking.

It is a peculiar prayer, not terribly well written; rather lumbering and clumsy in its expression, and, at first reading, one of those quasi-sentimental affairs that do not really belong in the great tradition of classic prayers. None the less, there is something about it that captures the equivocal nature of so many of our explorations of faith. It articulates that strange but powerful impulse that drives human beings towards God, or towards something that can’t even be named, but that we suspect might be God.

It is this disturbing sensation; a restlessness, an awareness that there is something more, perhaps, than is easily apprehended in our surroundings, which leads many pilgrims to set out on what will be, even in these civilised times, a challenging journey.

Once you are on the road, churches become obvious stopping points; if rarely warm, they do at least provide an opportunity to shelter from the more debilitating effects of rain and cold.

As you wander around the gloomy, strange-smelling interior, it is natural to pause at the altar, and perhaps address the Being whose aspect is represented there, often in graphic detail. It then seems only polite to engage in some kind of conversation, which may indeed be as hesitant and ill-expressed as the words of the prayer.

I have since found this prayer in many churches, usually badly typed, but very much worn, as if with many readings. It appears frequently on French Roman Catholic websites, always unattributed, always faintly unsettling with its limping prose and rather shallow expression of faith, and yet possessing the ability somehow to stick in the mind.

Perhaps this is because this is what our own faith is often like — hesitant and ill-expressed, difficult to define and often rather childish. Much time is spent equivocating with God: reassuring ourselves of his existence, running through the reasons for our faith as if trying to convince ourselves that they are genuine.

Our prayers are too often of that “shopping-list” type against which we so constantly battle, and yet which are so hard to resist. It would be so comfortable, after all, simply to hand over all responsibility for the world to its Creator and get on with our own lives, pausing only to remind him occasionally of what still needs doing.

We mourn the brevity of our interactions with God, the slender amounts of time we spend actively enjoying his company. Yet we ask for the reassurance that he might always be there in times of need.

Despite all this, however, despite the feebleness of our efforts, like the feebleness of the prayer’s prose, we are drawn onwards, led by the incarnate towards the infinite, in a journey of discovery of self and of God.

I pictured my imaginary pilgrim leaving as the rain eased, pausing only to place the prayer in the book before resuming the journey. I hoped he or she had encountered, if not the same resolution and faith expressed within it, at least some glimpse of it.

 

* The full prayer, in French, can be found at www.catholique-vosges.fr/Priere-d-un-touriste.

The Revd Sally Welch is the Vicar of Charlbury with Shorthampton, and Area Dean of Chipping Norton. She edits New Daylight Bible-reading notes for BRF, and is the author of several books, including Every Place is Holy Ground (Canterbury Press, 2011).

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